The long road ahead

RYAN PYETTE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:50 AM ET

Last year, the London Knights were the only OHL team to lose its young stars -- forwards Sam Gagner and Pat Kane -- to the NHL ranks early.

With the 2008-09 season just underway, there are at least a half dozen clubs who understand they could be in the same boat Mark and Dale Hunter were forced to paddle.

Newport Sports Management agent Mark Guy, who represents NHL first overall pick Steve Stamkos and a majority of the top 10 selected at Ottawa back in June, said this summer it's conceivable "six or seven" of the top young players could crack the big leagues this fall. Much of that talent will be plucked from OHL rosters.

Welcome to today's NHL, where a hard salary cap and rising prices for top stars means repairing the bottom line by stocking up on cheap, promising talent from the junior ranks.

"When Anaheim won the (Stanley) Cup two years ago," London head coach Dale Hunter said, "they had a second line of Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Dustin Penner. All of them were young guys making $500-600,000. When you have a situation like that, you can go out and pay your Prongers and the Niedermayers the big bucks and feel good about it."

Welcome to the OHL, where hockey stars are developed and prepared -- just not for very long.

"You look at Sam Gagner and he's a heady player, he knew what he had to do to stay in the NHL," Hunter said. "A lot of young guys only play one way but Sam knew had to take care of the defensive game and that's why the Oilers kept him."

The stakes have been raised in the Canadian Hockey League. There will be uniform drug testing in place for November across all three leagues -- not just the pioneering Quebec circuit.

The Windsor Spitfires suffered through tragedy when their captain Mickey Renaud died from heart complications in February. A strong returning group of forwards led by 45-goal rookie Taylor Hall has the Western Conference-favoured Spits starting out ranked No. 1 in the CHL.

The London Knights are contenders again after picking up Nazem Kadri, Phil Varone and Steve Tarasuk in a trade for all-world goalie Steve Mason in January. The Guelph Storm are good, but they could be great if defenceman Drew Doughty is sent back from Los Angeles.

In the east, the defending conference champion Belleville Bulls return considerable talent and will be better for their trip to the Memorial Cup. The Ottawa 67's are playing out the end of an era in front of retiring long-time head coach Brian Kilrea.

But in the first few months, all eyes will be on Oshawa, where soon-to-be 18-year-old phenom John Tavares starts his fourth season with the Generals.

Once considered the consensus first overall pick in the 2009 NHL draft, there are doubters now. His goal-scoring ability is uncanny, but he's coming off a subpar season by his standards, an ownership change, a new coach, an agent breakup and failed bids to get to the pros early.

If Oshawa wins, Tavares stays. If they're rebuilding, he will fetch a massive price from a contender looking to cement a spot at the 2009 Memorial Cup in Rimouski.

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WESTERNCONFERENCE

WINDSOR SPITFIRES

Last year: 41-15-7-5, 94 pts. Third in conference. Lost in first round 4-1 to Sarnia.

Leadership: Canadian Hockey League's top coach Bob Boughner orchestrated Spits' quick turnaround and provided club a reassurning voice after death of their captain Mickey Renaud in February.

Top guns: F Taylor Hall, the front-runner for first pick in 2010 NHL draft, scored 45 goals as a 16-year-old last year and was CHL rookie of the year . . . Second-year D Ryan Ellis led all first-year defencemen in scoring (15-48-63) . . . Josh Bailey (Islanders first pick, ninth overall in 2008) finished 10th in OHL scoring last year (29-67-96).

Happy trails: F Bradley Snetsinger. Consistent producer averaged 32 goals over final three seasons.

The club will retire Mickey Renaud's jersey during home opener Sept. 25 against Sarnia.

LONDON KNIGHTS

Last year: 38-24-4-2, 82 pts. Fourth in conference. Lost first round 4-1 to Guelph and scored just eight goals in five games.

Leadership: If he stays the whole season (and why wouldn't he?) coach Dale Hunter will join the late Bill Long for longest continuous tenure behind the bench in franchise history (eight seasons). Started campaign with 299 career wins.

Top guns: F Nazem Kadri (25-40-65 in Kitchener last year) has 30-goal, 100-point potential . . . F Chris MacKinnon scored 25 goals split between the Soo and Owen Sound . . . Rugged F Justin Taylor (26-29-55 last year) can score 40, and fight, too.

Happy trails: F Pat Maroon. Knights MVP and leading scorer (35-65-90) is in Philly's organization.

GUELPH STORM

Last year: 34-25-5-4, 77 pts. Fifth in conference. Lost to Sault Ste. Marie 4-1 in second round.

Leadership: Long-time assistant Jason Brooks took over coaching role from Dave Barr, then helped rescue a man from burning car on his daily commute from Listowel. There's no better role model.

Top guns: Over-age F Brandon Buck (29-31-60) started career injured, undrafted and unwanted -- but lots of teams would love to have the Storm leading scorer now.

Happy trails: F Rafael Rotter. The tiny captain had a subpar regular season last year, but stood tall in Guelph's two-round playoff run.

PLYMOUTH WHALERS

Last year: 34-28-2-4, 74 pts. Eighth in conference. Lost first round 4-0 to Kitchener.

Leadership: It's all-Stefan all the time with Greg Stefan as head coach and brother Joe his assistant.

Top guns: Carolina pick Chris Terry (44-57-101) is a candidate to win OHL scoring title . . . G Jeremy Smith has won 23 games each of his past two seasons.

Happy trails: F Andrew Fournier, who netted 35 goals and 75 points last year.

KITCHENER RANGERS

Last year: 53-11-1-3, 110 pts. First in OHL. Won league championship. Lost Memorial Cup final on home ice to Spokane.

Leadership: Long-time assistant Steve Spott takes over for Peter DeBoer, now the Florida Panthers boss.

Top guns: If CHL MVP and leading scorer Justin Azevedo (43-81-124) isn't back, this team will have to score by commitee.

Happy trails: World junior hero Matt Halischuk, steady Nick Spaling, fiesty Mike Duco, all-world G Steve Mason. The list of great good-byes goes on and on.

OWEN SOUND ATTACK

Last year: 20-4-2-5, 47 pts. Ninth in conference. Missed playoffs.

Leadership: GM Dale DeGray and coach Mark Reeds suffered through a lean first year. Will the good times start rolling?

Top guns: F Joey Hishon (20-27-47) produced franchise record season for under-ager . . . Bill Carroll's son Marcus scored 19 goals in 48 games last year. He could have 30 in him this season.

Happy trails: Big F Matt Carter popped 30 goals last season and his production has to be replaced.

ERIE OTTERS

Last year: 18-46-2-2, 40 pts. Last in conference. Missed playoffs third season in a row.

Leadership: Head coach Robbie Ftorek gets first full year behind the Otters bench.

Top guns: Red Wings prospect Zack Torquato (25 goals last year) has to pop 35-plus this time . . . Ryan O'Reilly, first overall pick in 2007, enjoyed solid rookie season (19-33-52).

Happy trails: That's if Justin Hodgman (37-43-80) sticks and surely there's a place in the pros for a guy with his jersey in the Hockey Hall of Fame. The Minnesota prospect scored the winning goal for the Fort Wayne Komets in triple overtime of Game 7 in the IHL final this past season.

SARNIA STING

Last year: 37-29-2-0, 76 pts. Sixth in conference. Lost second round 4-0 to Kitchener.

Leadership: Dave MacQueen is still head coach but Tim Bacik promoted to assistant to replace Jim Sandlak, now a scout with Anaheim.

Top guns: F Justin DiBenedetto (39-54-93) is in Islanders camp . . . Windsor native Matt Martin buried 25 goals in first full campaign.

Happy trails: D Ryan Wilson, Sting captain and best offensive defenceman, signed as a free agent with the Calgary Flames. Most think Sarnia suffers without Stamkos. Their sting won't be as lethal without him.

SAGINAW SPIRIT

Last year: 33-25-8-2, 76 pts. Seventh in conference. Lost first round 4-0 to Sault Ste. Marie.

Leadership: First-year head coach Todd Watson coaxed playoff spot out of Spirit but the first round remains a major hurdle for the franchise.

Top guns: All-star F Jack Combs (42-58-100) is trying to win a job with the Colorado Avalanche . . . D Adam Comrie (10-18-28) adds some offensive touch at the back end.

Happy trails: F Ryan McDonough (45-44-89) will play pro in Salzburg, Austria.

SAULT STE. MARIE GREYHOUNDS

Last year: 44-18-2-4, 94 pts. West division champs. Lost conference final 4-1 to Kitchener.

Leadership: Ex-assistant Denny Lambert takes over for Craig Hartsburg, now the Ottawa Senators coach.

Top guns: Newly-minted captain Matt Lyall (21-36-57) an inspiration story who overcame a rare disease to become an effective player . . . Soo native Matt Caria has 35-goal potential.

Happy trails: G Kyle Gajewski. The franchise leader in nearly every important puck-stopping category has signed with the Nashville organization.

EASTERNCONFERENCE

BELLEVILLE BULLS

Last year: 48-14-4-2, 102 pts. First in conference. Lost OHL final 4-3 and Memorial Cup semi to Kitchener.

Leadership: Back-to-back Eastern champs? Bulls GM/coach George Burnett's team has a shot for first repeat since Ottawa in 1997-98.

Top guns: F Bryan Cameron (41-37-78) has 50 goals in his stick . . . Habs prospect P.K. Subban (8-39-47) is dangerous when he starts the rush.

Happy trails: Star F Shawn Matthias (32-47-79 in 53 games) now plays for ex-Kitchener coach Peter DeBoer in Florida. The two faced each other nine times in the league final and Memorial Cup last spring.

BRAMPTON BATTALION

Last year: 42-22-1-3, 88 pts. Central division champions. Lost first round 4-1 to Barrie.

Leadership: Stan Butler celebrates a decade as Troop leader this season. He's the only coach the Battalion have known.

Top guns: F Cody Hodgson (40-45-85) selected 10th overall by Vancouver Canucks in 2008 draft . . . 20-year-old F John Hughes (28-63-91) is a former first overall pick of Belleville (2004).

Happy trails: G Bryan Pitton, an Oilers pick, won 48 games the past two seasons but split duty with new starter Patrick Killeen last year.

BARRIE COLTS

Last year: 28-34-3-3, 62 pts. Seventh in conference. Lost second round 4-0 to Belleville.

Leadership: Added 15-year ex-NHLer Jeff Beukeboom, whose son Brock is now with his old OHL team in Sault Ste. Marie, as assistant to coach Marty Williamson. Ex-Leaf Drake Berehowsky is another assistant.

Top guns: In his first full season, 17-year-old F Alex Hutchings (29-25-54) led low-scoring Colts in points after flashy over-ager Vladimir Nikiforov was traded to Sarnia . . . F Mitch Lebar (6-6-12) had a strong offensive pre-season.

Happy trails: Slovakian F Tomas Marcinko (19-26-45). Islanders prospect had four goals and seven points in nine playoff games.

OTTAWA 67's

Last year: 29-34-2-3, 63 pts. Sixth in conference. Lost first round 4-0 to Oshawa.

Leadership: This is 32-year head coach Brian Kilrea's final season.

Top guns: F Logan Couture (21-37-58 in 51 games) is a Sharks No. 1 pick and one of the best-rounded players in the league. But the captain hasn't played an injury-free season since his rookie year . . . First pick Tyler Toffoli, a 16-year-old from Scarborough, could be a rookie to watch.

Happy trails: F Jamie McGinn. San Jose prospect scored 111 goals in four years with Ottawa.

SUDBURY WOLVES

Last year: 17-46-2-3, 39 pts.. Missed playoffs. Last in OHL.

Leadership: Mike Foligno is in his sixth season as head coach. At least one of his sons -- Nick and Marcus -- have played for him every year but one (his first in 2003-04).

Top guns: Jared Staal (21-28-49) was a Phoenix second rounder and possesses those tremendous Thunder Bay NHL bloodlines . . . How do you do? First overall pick John McFarland recorded a hat trick and five points in his first OHL pre-season game.

Happy trails: Nobody, really. Foligno traded all his over-agers last year, including standout Dane goalie Sebastian Dahm to Niagara, to get younger.

MISSISSAUGA ST. MICHAEL'S MAJORS

Last year: 31-32-2-3, 67 pts. Fifth in conference. Lost in first round 4-0 to Niagara.

Leadership: Linked with Ottawa Senators through Eugene Melnyk's ownership of both clubs. Second year of second stint for Majors coach Dave Cameron, who also ran the show four seasons when team played at St. Mike's school.

Top guns: Second-year F Casey Cizikas (18-23-41) will quickly become club's heart and soul . . . Swedish import William Wallen has been a pre-season standout.

Happy trails: Latvian F Kaspars Daugavins (40-34-74) is a Sens third rounder and was Majors' most reliable scorer last year.

KINGSTON FRONTENACS

Last year: 25-41-0-2, 52 pts. Ninth in conference. Missed playoffs.

Leadership: Long-time GM Larry Mavety stays on in third stint as Fronts' head coach for first full season at new K-Rock Centre.

Top guns: F Nathan Moon (35-42-77) and Matthew Kang (30-36-66) provide impressive one-two punch . . . 2007 first rounder Ethan Werek reported after 70 points in 37 games for Stouffville Junior A Spirit.

Happy trails: Six-foot-seven D Justin Wallingford (11-39-50) provided offence and played it tough.

PETERBOROUGH PETES

Last year: 28-36-1-3, 60 pts.. Eighth in conference. Lost first round 4-1 to Belleville.

Leadership: Ken McRae, a former Quebec Nordiques first rounder, takes over the coaching reins from Vince Malette.

Top guns: F Pat Daley (28-20-48) and Zach Harnden (23-17-40) should battle for team scoring title.

Happy trails: F Justin Soryal racked up the penalty minutes but was an under-rated scorer with 43 goals last two seasons.

OSHAWA GENERALS

Last year: 38-17-6-7, 89 points. Third in conference. Lost conference final 4-1 to Belleville, including 11-0 thrashing on road in Game 5.

Leadership: Chris DePiero is head coach for a new ownership group that had Windsor's Rocco Tullio add former Spitfires buddies Peter DeBoer and Adam Graves as partners.

Top guns: We should all have off-years like F John Tavares (40-78-118 and plus-22). Still 17 for a few more days, he has 157 goals in three OHL seasons . . . D Michael Del Zotto, who the New York Rangers picked 20th overall, can score (16-47-63).

Happy trails: Hard-to-replace F Brett MacLean 961-58-119). Back-to-back 100-point seasons and a Phoenix second rounder.

NIAGARA ICEDOGS

Last year: 42-25-0-1, 85 pts. Fourth in conference. Lost in second round 4-2 to Oshawa.

Leadership: Second-year bench boss Mario Cicchillo named coach of this year's defending gold medal Ontario Under-17 team.

Top guns: F Chris DeSousa scored 23 goals and was plus-25 in first full season . . . D Alex Pietrangelo, a St. Louis first-rounder, has already signed by the Blues, would be one of league's best if he returns.

Happy trails: F Jordan Foreman brought goals (28) and grit (155 penalty minutes) in his final OHL season.


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